Silent Hall (Kindle: $6.99 Paperback: $7.99) is a classic fantasy novel written by a dear friend from my college days. The novel is written for a new generation of readers, while hearkening back to some familiar themes. As I began this book, I immediately recognized the internal sensation that is discordant with most fantasy published in 2016, the sensation of comfort. This would be a book about characters who did the right thing, often despite themselves, became close unexpectedly, and found themselves in the process. This book features five very different characters who all have reason to be unhappy with their lives but none of whom would have voluntarily committed to the journey they end up taking together, as refugees. Of the many things that guide their actions, one of the main things is their struggle with their own moral compasses, with trying to understand how to be good people in a complicated world. The book does some new and unique things as well; it consciously addresses certain political challenges that are relevant to today’s struggles, and it also features an endearing and surprising system of scholarship the characters use as they interpret the world around them.
I knew this reading experience, because when I grew up in the nineties, I read Patricia C. Wrede, and Tamora Pierce, and Melanie Rawn and Mercedes Lackey. These authors presented similar tropes, in fantasy settings. Most striking for me is the sure knowledge from the get go, in both these authors’ novels and in Dolkart’s Silent Hall, that these characters take it as a given that there is a shared ethic. It is simply assumed that there is a right thing to do.
Today, for the same group of readers, instead of these tropes, fantasy mainly refers to paranormal romance, and to tropes that can and often do glorify lack of control generally and rape specifically. In library school, we talked about how fantasy has gotten so much darker. It was largely seen as a liberalization of standards, of permissions. We now accept that kids and young adults (who are commonly seen as the target demographic for fantasy novels, although of course this leaves out a non-trivial minority of adults as well) can read this stuff without becoming crazed and violent. But perhaps there’s something else going on, too. In reading Silent Hall, I began to reflect on how the key difference between Dolkart’s work and that of say, Stephenie Meyer, is that in Meyer’s work, a lack of control has largely taken the place of the moral standards Dolkart’s characters struggle to understand and abide by. This is a substantial difference in both theme and literary mechanic. In paranormal romance, we sympathize (or don’t, as in the case of my grumpy self) with these new characters because of the way their individuality is subjected to forces beyond their control, and we are meant to thrill at the idea that possibly we, too, could one day live without the burden of ethical choices on our shoulders.
Dolkart’s Silent Hall is a refreshing and comforting reminder that there remains in the literature, and in the minds of some people, an idea of a morality that is upheld by us all and individually manifested. This morality is not one that speaks to identity, but to the basic human interaction.
If you are a reader of fantasy, I highly recommend Silent Hall, the first in Dolkart’s new series. Read it because you like a comfort read. Read it because you like to read about close friends succeeding together. Read it because you appreciate the value of ethical interaction that is so lost in most of the fantasy literature coming out today. Read it for its cleverness, read it for its endearing Talmud like study of a fantastical theology. Read it because of its feminist bent or its discussion of the value of knowledge and the fear that knowledge can generate. Read it to watch characters learn to love themselves. Read it because it’s raining outside. Whatever. Read it!